My Shakespeare: Readiness is all

MICHELANGELO, Buonarroti - Pieta

Michelangelo Buonarroti. Pieta. 1898-1899.

This post continues the series I began about a month ago, “My Shakespeare”, and I want to begin to talk directly about one of Shakespeare’s deepest and most essential contribution to our worldview (or even, arguably, the deepest one): his construal of death, and of our relationships with the dead.

What if fascinating about the sonnets sequence is how unabashedly atheistic its speaker’s attitude to death is. For him, there is no eternal after-life, nothing beyond death’s eternal cold – in a striking contrast to, say, John Donne, or even to somewhat more complex and ambiguous approach in Shakespeare’s own plays (about which I will also probably talk somewhat later). It is even more striking when one recalls that the structure of the afterlife, and the ability of the living to influence their loved ones’ fate there, in the wake of their death, was a hot political issue of the time.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 13: Against the stormy gusts of winter day // and barren rage of death's eternal cold

Sonnet 13: Against the stormy gusts of winter day and barren rage of death’s eternal cold. 20″x20″. Oil on linen. 2012

For the speaker of the sonnets – and he does talk about death, and the fragility and fleeting nature of human existence, quite a lot – there are only two paths to eternity: procreation, and art (which is to say, human memory). No other routes to salvation, no options of life beyond death. The immediate reason for this post is that, in the course of the last week’s work, I suddenly clearly understood how is that possible – not in our times, when atheism is more or less common, but in his time.

And the answer was: the speaker of the sonnet is always in the world of the survivors, the world of the living. In other words, he is not concerned with his own death and what will come after it; he only thinks of the future death of his beloved, and the empty world left behind. Whatever one’s specific spiritual beliefs, they don’t really matter from this point of view: we mourn independently of whether or not there is a promise of heaven.

Recall this mother in Michelangelo’s statue shown above? For all we know, if there ever was a mother who had no reason to mourn, who could feel assured that her son’s troubles were over and his glorious future assured, it is this one. But mourning doesn’t really know reason, and is not assuaged by beliefs, and so she mourns. Isn’t that the truth for all of us? Isn’t it the empty mortal world left by our beloved ones, not the future after our own death, that’s really frightening?

Sonnet 7: Golden pilgrimage

Sonnet 7: Golden pilgrimage

Sonnet 7: Golden pilgrimage. 20"x20", oil on linen. 2012

Lo! in the orient when the gracious light
Lifts up his burning head, each under eye
Doth homage to his new-appearing sight,
Serving with looks his sacred majesty;
And having climb’d the steep-up heavenly hill,
Resembling strong youth in his middle age,
yet mortal looks adore his beauty still,
Attending on his golden pilgrimage;
But when from highmost pitch, with weary car,
Like feeble age, he reeleth from the day,
The eyes, ‘fore duteous, now converted are
From his low tract and look another way.
So thou, thyself out-going in thy noon,
Unlook’d on diest, unless thou get a son.

The sonnet has a remarkably simple and straightforward composition, with its three quatrains describing three stages of the sun’s travel through a day. It’s made slightly more sophisticated by the “reversed” metaphor: the general context suggests that the sun’s journey is used as a metaphor of a man’s journey through life, yet within the narrower contexts of the quatrains, it’s rather man’s life that serves as a metaphor for the sun. Only in the couplet, the “correct” direction of the metaphor is reestablished and nailed, with an endearing naiveté, by the simple pun on “sun”/”son”.

This metaphoric structure, aided by mixed religious associations in the quatrains, creates a subtly subversive, nearly blasphemous, effect, putting the young addressee of the sonnet above all suns and gods in the overall hierarchy of universe: the god-like sun is like a man, and thou art like the sun.

It was clear to me from the beginning that my composition will have to rely on the overall curve of the sun’s golden pilgrimage to contrast the upward and downward movements, which would require fitting all three positions of the sun within the same picture plane. I also needed to try and “stop” the viewer’s eye from following the downward movement, in order to enact in the painting the basic conceit of the poem, the eyes converted and looking another way when the sun goes down (this conceit, by the way, while still sounding close to truth as far as human life is concerned, must be surprising to the modern reader/viewer accustomed to think of sunsets as something beautiful to behold, a sight to catch; commentaries on Shakespeare’s sonnets insist that this wasn’t the case in his time, when sunsets were strongly associated with death).

Joseph Siroker. "Dreaming in the city"

Joseph Siroker. "Dreaming in the city"

The composition I ended up with crystallized when I saw a photo by Joseph Siroker on Google+. Not only does it present the right balance and contrast of upward and downward movements, but it suggested a way to integrate religious references into my somewhat surreal landscape, so that the sky transforms into a church roof with an adequate degree of ambiguity. The edge of the imaginary roof also gave me a direct way to interrupt the eye movement between the highmost pitch and the sunset parts of the painting.